Olympics Summer

1928: Amsterdam, Netherlands

Canada put together its best Olympic showing to date in Amsterdam. Leading the way was 20-year-old Percy Williams, whose slight build defied the odds as he won the 100m and 200m crowns — the only time both events have ever been won by a Canadian. The women's track team made its mark too, earning the nickname The Matchless Six.
Canadian sprinter Percy Williams, who won gold medals at 100 and 200 metres, gets a lift from his teammates. (Central Press/Getty Images)

Amsterdam wanted to host the 1916 Olympics, but they were cancelled because of the First World War. Amsterdam tried again in 1920 and was supposed to host them in 1924, but the International Olympic Committee's weakness for symbolic gestures intervened, and those Games went to Antwerp and Paris, respectively.

Finally, Amsterdam got its chance in 1928, over the objections of its own monarch. Queen Wilhelmine thought the Olympics were a pagan festival and refused to make an appearance at either the opening or closing ceremony.

Quick Facts

Number of countries: 46

Number of athletes: 2,883 (277 women, 2,606 men)

Number of sports: 14

Number of events: 109

Number of different countries winning gold medals: 28

Next time at least 28 different countries would win gold medals: 1968

Gold medallist in field hockey: India

Next time a country other than India would win field hockey gold: 1964

Gold medallist in team sabre fencing: Hungary

Next time a country other than Hungary would win team sabre fencing gold: 1968

The opening ceremony showed the Dutch had a flair for symbolism themselves. After a decade of post-war uncertainty, the ceremony featured the release of doves, and the first lighting of the Olympic flame, which burned continuously throughout the Games.

The new 40,000-seat stadium, featuring a 400-metre oval track with a cycling track built around it, became a model for future Games. Accommodations were less state-of-the-art. In the absence of an Olympic Village, the IOC handed out sleeping bags and barrack berths to athletes.

Not content to slum it like this, the United States put up its athletes in a couple of boats in the port of Amsterdam. However, they failed to take into account the disturbances caused by the loading and unloading of cargo at all hours.

Germany welcomed back

In the spirit of reconciliation, Germany was invited to the Olympics for the first time since 1912, and the Germans promptly proved themselves a powerhouse with 31 medals. Only the Americans, whose delegation was headed by future armed forces commander Douglas MacArthur, bested the Germans, with a total of total of 56 medals.

But the medals were spread around in an unprecedented way at the Amsterdam Olympics. Japanese, Egyptian, South African and Indian athletes won gold medals, a Haitian won the silver in the long jump, and Uruguay won the Olympic soccer competition — a warm-up for Uruguay's 1930 World Cup triumph.

The women of the British Olympic team on a railway platform, bound for the Games in Holland. (Walter Bellamy/London Express/Getty Images)

Familiar faces: Weissmuller and Nurmi

Along with the emerging talents, some of the biggest stars of 1924 returned to the Olympics for a last flourish. American Johnny Weissmuller — the swimming sensation of the 1924 Games and the future star of Tarzan movies — had to overcome a big gulp of water mid-race and other aches and pain in the 100 metres. Both setbacks slowed him down, but he still won the gold in world-record time. He added another gold and another world record with the U.S. men's 4X200m relay team, which lopped 17 seconds off the previous mark.

Multiple gold medallists

Georges Miez, Switzerland

3 - Gymnastics

Ray Barbuti, U.S.

2 - Athletics

Pete Desjardins, U.S.

2 - Diving

Lucien Gaudin, France

2 - Fencing

Henry Hansen, Denmark

2 - Cycling

Hermann Manggi, Switzerland

2 - Gymnastics

Martha Norelius, U.S.

2 - Swimming

Albina Osipowich, U.S.

2 - Swimming

Odon Tersztyanszky, Hungary

2 - Fencing

Johnny Weissmuller, U.S.

2 - Swimming

Percy Williams, Canada

2 - Athletics

Finland was still dominant in distance running, with four golds won by four different runners. The great Paavo Nurmi, in the twilight of his running career and competing in his final Olympiad, won his ninth Olympic gold in the same race in which he won his first: the 10,000m. Nurmi also won silver in the 5,000m and the steeplechase, which were won by his fellow Finns, Ville Ritola and Toivo Loukola, respectively.

And while Nurmi was ending a brilliant career, there was a hint of future greatness from African distance runners. Mohammed El Ouafi, an Algerian who ran under France's flag, won the marathon.

Women race for their rights

The Roaring Twenties also brought a shakeup to the Olympic old boys' club. For the first time in the Olympics, women competed in gymnastics and five track and field events: 100m, 4X100m relay, high jump, discus and 800m. Those events alone meant the number of women competing more than doubled from 136 in 1924 to 290 in Amsterdam — nearly one tenth of all the athletes.

Female athletes encountered a lot of resistance in high places, though. Former IOC President Pierre de Coubertin and the Vatican both opposed women competing in track and field. But de Coubertin had stepped down from the helm of the IOC by the Amsterdam Games, and the inclusion of women went ahead.

Still, some felt that including women would tarnish the Olympic ideal of "higher, faster, stronger" and that they risked damaging their delicate reproductive systems. Those views obviously sound retrograde now, but they picked up traction when Lina Radke — the winner of the first women's 800m gold and Germany's first female track medallist — collapsed after the race.

There were suggestions that all women's sports be eliminated from the Olympics because "feats of endurance" were dangerous to women. In the end, a compromise was struck: After 1928, all women's races of more than 200m were banned until the 1960 Olympics.

American swimmer Johnny Weissmuller takes a breath while swimming in a freestyle race. (Getty Images)

The best Canadian track and field team?

Canada was also opposed to women's competition in track. That might seem at odds with Canada's reputation as a leader in women's sport, but it was also odd considering the success of Canadian women in the 1928 Olympic athletics competition. Overall, Canada put together its best Olympic showing to date in Amsterdam, with four golds, four silver and seven bronze. Leading the way was Vancouver's 20-year-old Percy Williams, whose slight build defied the odds as he won the 100m and 200m crowns — the only time both events have ever been won by a Canadian.

Canadian medallists

Percy Williams

2 gold - Athletics

Fanny "Bobbie" Rosenfeld

gold, silver - Athletics

Ethel Smith

gold, bronze - Athletics

Ethel Catherwood

gold - Athletics

Women's 4X100m Relay

gold - Athletics

James Ball

silver - Athletics

Donald Stockton

silver - Wrestling

Joseph Wright and Jack Guest

silver - Rowing

But it was the six-member women's track team, known as the Matchless Six, that made this arguably Canada's best Olympic track team in history. Fanny "Bobbie" Rosenfeld, the premier female Canadian athlete of her generation and later selected as Canada's Outstanding Female Athlete for the first half of the 20th Century, won gold with the women's 4X100m relay team and silver in the 100m.

High jumper Ethel Catherwood won gold with a jump of 1.59m and was dubbed the "Saskatoon Lily" by a smitten male-dominated media that seemed to pay as much attention to her looks as her athletic ability. The Canadian women's track team outperformed all other countries with two gold, two silver and a bronze, lifting Canada to a 10th-place finish — its best performance until the boycott-depleted 1984 games.

Other Canadian track highlights included a silver in the 400m by James Ball. Also, Phil Edwards won the first of his five Olympic medals, anchoring the 4X400m relay team to bronze.


The Matchless Six

Canada's crew of female track and field stars — Fanny "Bobbie" Rosenfeld, Jean Thompson, Ethel Smith, Mrytle Cook, Ethel Catherwood, and Jane Bell — became known as the Matchless Six.

They looked more luckless than matchless early in the Games. Cook, the 100-metre world-record holder was disqualified from the 100m final after two false starts. The third start in the 100m was clean, but the race ended in controversy. Rosenfeld appeared to have won, but the gold medal was awarded to the American Betty Robinson. Smith took the bronze medal.

The Canadians also expected gold in the 800m. Unfortunately, world-record holder Thompson injured her leg in the days leading up to the final. Thompson came out strong, but as the race progressed she began to struggle and fell from the medals into fourth place. Thompson finished fourth; Rosenfeld finished fifth.

The Matchless Six would not be denied in the relay, though. The team was made up of Rosenfeld, Smith, Cook and Jane Bell. (Bell's real first name was Florence, but was nicknamed Calamity Jane by her father because she was so untidy.)

Rosenfeld, Smith and Bell, built a comfortable lead, with Cook running the anchor leg. Cook was anxious to make up for her disqualification in the 100m — maybe too anxious, since she was almost out of the legal exchange zone by the time Bell reached her with the baton. But the exchange was made legally, and the Canadian women finally won gold.

After the relay there was one event left for a member of the Matchless Six. Catherwood represented Canada in the high jump. She was called the Saskatoon Lily, and dubbed the prettiest woman at the Olympics. Catherwood would win the event with a jump of 1.59m. Her gold medal remains the only individual gold medal ever won by a Canadian woman in track and field.

And another thing...

Australian rower Henry Pearce stopped in the midst of his quarterfinal heat to let a family of ducks cross his lane, single file, in front of his boat. Pearce went on to win the race and the gold medal.

Medal Table

  Country Gold Silver Bronze Total
1 United States 22 18 16 56
2 Germany 10 7 14 31
3 Finland 8 8 9 25
4 Sweden 7 6 12 25
5 France 6 10 5 21
10 Canada 4 4 7 15